Chapter 1: The Problem That Has No Name

by Catherine on March 7, 2011 · 7 comments

The Feminine Mystique is credited as having started the second wave of feminism in America. With this in the forefront of my mind this week, I tumbled through the first chapter of The Feminine Mystique. Uncertain as to what I would find when I started out, I was a bit astonished to find the ideas of this feminist hero a bit hyperbolic and too general to reach the conclusions that she does.

I want to get your take on it, though. So whether you’ve read it or not, read below and let me know what you think.

First of all, Betty Friedan defines “the problem that has no name” as “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction” which results in each suburban American housewife asking herself the silent question “Is this all?” as she does the daily chores, makes meals, drives the kids to and fro and then goes to sleep beside her husband at night.

Friedan also says “the problem” is seen in a mother of four who dropped out of college when she was nineteen and later told Friedan:

“I’ve tried everything women are supposed to do – hobbies, gardening, pickling, canning, being very social with my neighbor, joining committees, running PTA teas. I can do it all, and I like it, but it doesn’t leave you anything to think about – any feelings of who you are. I never had any career ambitions. All I wanted was to get married and have four children. I love the kids and Bob and my home. There’s no problem you can even put a name to. But I’m desperate. I begin to feel that I have no personality. I’m a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bedmaker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?”

The question this young mother asks is one ubiquitous in the minds of all women. One, I know which I have asked myself. Its a question that needs an answer, whether you’ve gone to college or not, had a career or not, or gotten married or not. This young mother is aware of her actions and seems to have struggled with the thought that if she is the sum of her total daily actions, she is a nobody and therefore, offers no significance or value to the world . . . seems indeed nightmarish.

This is exactly what Friedan wants young women to think – that we are what we do. That we are the sum of our total daily actions. If we go so far as to say yes, everyone is thus marginalized into the mundane deeds of their lives. Really, if a mother is just a putter-on of pants, a server of food, and a bedmaker, then any CEO or manager is just a signer of documents and a filler of a chair in meetings.

Such a generalization sounds absurd and laughable about a CEO – likewise, to me, it seems that it is absurdity to think that a wife and mother is only a putter-on of pants, a server of food, and a bedmaker.

We all know that a CEO does more than signs documents and sits in a chair in meetings. He or she leads a company or organization. He or she establishes a culture for a team to function in. He or she manages the team which has been entrusted to them by a board or founder. It is indeed a sobering position – that of a CEO.

Likewise, a mother does more than puts pants on their children, serves food, and makes the beds. In comparison to the “career” world, the work of a wife and mother is focused on people not percentages. Since I’m not a mother, I cannot speak from personal experience to all that a mother does.

If you read this and you are a mother, what do you do everyday? Do you feel that you are what you do? Or do you see it as the duty of a greater responsibility? And if it’s not to much to ask, why do you do what you do?

If you read this and you are not a mother, what does the position of mother seem to you? What does it mean to be a mother? Do you think they are only the maker of sandwiches and beds?

In the meantime, keep living the dream.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Danelle March 8, 2011 at 5:34 pm

You raise many great questions, Catherine! I think that motherhood is such an honorable role and one that is much more than just a “maker of sandwiches and beds.” I know that from my own mother.
However, I think the point that Friedan tries to make here is that women who pursue education – like going to college – and then drop out suddenly, have what some would call “unfinished business.” It would be similar to preparing yourself for motherhood, only to suddenly stop (for whatever reason) and start a job as a CEO. You may have wanted the CEO position all along, but there’s still a major void and yearning for that motherhood. I think the same “unnamed problem” that Friedan describes would occur- maybe even with stronger feelings because motherhood is so sacred.
I am very eager to see what you think about the rest of the book! Happy reading!

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Annemarie March 11, 2011 at 10:14 am

As a mother, it is easy to get caught-up in the daily routine. It’s easy to start looking at the daily tasks — feeding the baby, changing diapers, wiping runny noses, doing the laundry, cooking dinner — and feel discouraged because you feel like the local maid service. However, what can compare to waking-up every morning and hearing your baby say, “Momma”, or your little girl run-up to you and give you a hug and say, “hand” because she wants you to walk with her? Who can put into words the joy of seeing your baby sleep so peacefully at night — no cares in the world? Also, who can measure the worth of a woman who dedicates her whole life to raising the next generation of leaders? I think the challenge of motherhood is maintaining perspective — remembering that all the mundane chores all the dirty diapers are investments in the future. We are the building the next generation.

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Diana Smith March 14, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Dear Fellow Enlightened Women,
As listed below **, we can see that the definition of “housewife”–what Ms. Friedan was really wrestling with when she penned her thoughts–emphasizes that a woman who manages the household that she and her husband and children take refuge in, is given much authority.
This woman is “in charge”, she is a “manager”, she “takes care of domestic affairs”.( Every
government in the Western world has an office of Domestic Affairs!)
A woman who is married and sees to the affairs of her household or domicile is in a position of tremendous authority and influence, she directly impacts all of the individuals–husband, children, neighbors, etc. who move within her sphere of sovereignty.
According to Rita W. Kramer, author of “Peanut Butter On My Pillow”, “we let housewifery
become a mediocre,monotonous task when we fail or refuse to see the nobility of it.” Since
1979 I’ve been married to the same, outstanding husband, and since 1981 I’ve birthed 9 children and with my husband have raised them up to be responsible students, then productive professionals, then husbands, wives and parents as well as committed community members.
If there’s a “problem without a name” it would be how to find the correct noun to accurately envelope ALL that being a housewife really entails: cook, laundress, cleaning supervisor, the encourager, exhorter, cheerleader, behavior modifier, and even above all that….the keeper of the home…the one who tries, although imperfectly, to protect and preserve a safe haven for all of those who take refuge within our walls.

**Definitions of “Housewife”:
a wife who manages a household while her husband earns the family income
wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn
A woman who manages a home and takes care of domestic affairs.
http://www.nps.gov/archive/hofu/TEACHERS/vocab.html
a married woman in charge of a household
merriam-webster.com/dictionary
Here’s to each and every woman who finds the rare jewel of contentment in her full time job as wife and mother,
Diana Smith

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Kara April 26, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Danelle, I think the point you make is very interesting. As I was reading this chapter I thought of exactly the same thing. These women may have felt that there was a “probem” or something was missing. But I can’t stop wonderng of a new Problem. That exsists whith women who made the choice to live lives without a family. Who now face a future of old age alone. I wonder if a “reverse” feminism movement will begin, encourageing mothership and the nobility of sacraficing your life for someone else’s life. I wonder of the New Problem, for these women who denied themselves one of the most natural experiances, of being a mother.

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Delaney June 27, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I just started the book so I am playing catch up…

But just as the role of the CEO leads a company or organization. A mother leads the family. More often than not they are the glue that holds the family together. A feeling of emptiness comes with whatever job you pursue if you’re not doing something you like. It is ridiculous to attach it to the role of a mother. For many women raising children and working in the home is the most fulfilling job in the world. For others its sitting in a board room… “To each their own”

Raising children is probably one of the most challenging jobs any person (man or woman) can face. As a 21 year old (I still consider myself a child in some aspects) there is nothing more important to me than the things I learned from my mother.

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